Loss of cruise travelers 'another year of hardship'

Series: Tourism | Story 2

A month ago, the draft cruise ship schedule for Wrangell showed 50 stops in town, with the two largest vessels able to accommodate 1,100 and 1,300 passengers and crew. But now, there's not much the community can do but wait to see whether or not smaller ships still come to town, said Stephanie Cook, executive director of the Wrangell Chamber of Commerce.

A Feb. 4 decision by the government of Canada to keep its waters closed to cruise ship traffic through February 2022 blocks the larger vessels from sailing to Alaska. Canada took the step to help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, same as it did last summer.

The ban applies to ships with more than 100 passengers. "It's going to be another year of hardship," Cook said.

Smaller cruise ships and tour boats that spend the entire summer in Alaska and don't need to run through Canadian waters on each voyage can continue their scheduled sailings, if they want.

Those passengers, along with independent travelers who arrive by air or state ferry, will provide this summer's tourist season in Wrangell. The community was on the schedule for 10 ships that can carry less than 100 passengers each, and an equal number of vessels with room for 200 or more, according to the chamber's draft schedule.

"2020 was devastating," said John Taylor, who operates Summit Charters. He said he lost more than $100,000 in sales last summer, and he fears 2021 will be similar. It costs him $6,000 a year in insurance just to keep his boats covered up in the shed, he said.

Taylor said he has no bookings for this summer. "99% of my work is off the ships."

His only charter all last summer was for Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his family, who came to town aboard their private yacht.

"It was pretty devastating news for us," Brenda Schwartz-Yeager, of Alaska Charters and Adventures, said of Canada's decision. "I did not expect a normal cruise ship season this year ... but I was hoping we'd have some activity."

She was meeting last week with cruise ship executives, making plans for this summer's tours, "when all of our phones went off simultaneously" with the bad news out of Canada.

Alaska Charters and Adventures operated at a loss last year, said Schwartz-Yeager, who has been in the business 32 years. Her operation and many others in town "had tooled up to meet the occupancy of these ships," with fixed costs for boat payments, insurance and more.

"I am hoping that the U.S. government will be able to find a solution," she said. "I am really concerned about our economy in Alaska. ... another year is going to have untold consequences."

A century-old law intended to protect the U.S. maritime industry requires that foreign-flagged vessels, such as cruise ships, must include a foreign port of call when running between U.S. ports. For Alaska cruises that start and end in Seattle, that usually meant calling on Vancouver or Victoria, British Columbia.

Alaska's congressional delegation and Southeast Alaska legislators are writing and calling federal officials, in hopes of obtaining an emergency waiver from the law, or lobbying Canada to change its mind.

"The decision by Canada to close its border to cruise ship traffic is disappointing and unacceptable," said Ketchikan Rep. Dan Ortiz. "Without the prospect of large cruise ships visiting Alaska this summer, many businesses will likely fail, doing irreparable damage to our economy."

It's not just getting through Canada that is an issue. Cruise ships are still waiting on pandemic-related operating rules from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "They have some pretty big hurdles," Ortiz said.

"Southeast legislators are already at work - through conversations, correspondence, and the drafting of resolutions - to enlist our delegation in Washington, D.C., to seek a waiver from this (foreign port) provision," said Juneau Rep. Sara Hannan. "But we have also been warned that achieving exemptions from such maritime laws is notoriously difficult."

Canada's ban on vessel traffic had been set to expire at the end of February, but Transport Canada in its decision said, "Cruise vessels in Canadian waters pose a risk to our health care systems."

In 2019, cruise ships carried more than 1.3 million visitors to Alaska, providing the majority of summer travelers to the state. Cruise traffic went to zero last summer, due to the pandemic's lockdown.

Wrangell had expected 17,000 cruise ship travelers last summer.

The bad news for this year started even before Canada's announcement. A month ago, Windstar Cruises, which brought a 208-passenger ship to Wrangell about 10 times in 2019 and planned to return this summer with a larger ship, decided to cancel its entire 2021 season.

The draft cruise ship schedule compiled by the chamber showed vessels in port mid-May to the end of September. Cook said several already have pushed back their start date and she hopes to confirm that many of the smaller ones will operate this summer.

The Wrangell chamber has more than 10 charter and tour boat operators as members, Cook said. "They pretty much had nothing last year." She fears some may not come back to business if they have a second miserable year in a row.

There are about a dozen charter and tour boat operators in town, said Taylor, of Summit Charters.

"Everybody's grabbing everything they can get their hands on," said Eric Yancey, who owns and operates Breakaway Adventures. Though Yancey hasn't contracted with cruise ships for years, he does pull in some independent travelers for his tours.

In addition to smaller cruise ships that may operate in Southeast this summer, Cook said the tourism industry in town will focus on attracting more independent travelers. She said the chamber is getting a lot of interest from people looking to come to Alaska.

Wrangell always been well positioned for independent travelers, Schwartz-Yaeger said, with Anan Creek the Stikine River and other nearby attractions.

Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka are all more heavily dependent than Wrangell on the large cruise ships and will be hit harder by the loss of several thousand tourists aboard each ship. Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata said he has been contacted by multiple people who said they plan to move out of town. Skagway's largest employer, the tourist-oriented White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, laid off 27 workers last weekend.

"Skagway is at risk of ceasing to exist as everyone knows it," Cremata told the Anchorage Daily News.


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